If you’re anything like me, you’re probably cooped up at home dreaming of exploring somewhere new, learning a new language and visiting new sights. Maybe you’re looking for a mental getaway, a pleasant distraction in these uncertain times, or new inspiration to make future holiday plans come together. It seems only right to spread some positivity where we can and learning about the annual blossoming of new life feels like the perfect way to do so. I hope in this blogpost I can teach you a little bit about the tradition and maybe some Japanese language along the way!
Cherry blossoms are often considered an iconic symbol of Japan, so it’s no wonder that the Japanese proudly celebrate the flowers blooming in a tradition known as hanami! Hanami is the cultural tradition of viewing the blossoming cherry trees, often following dedicated trails, visiting temples, castles and shrines, or setting up a picnic or party in communal parks to get the best views of the blossoms.
Hanami literally means ‘flower viewing’:
花 (はな) hana = flower
見 (み) mi = to see, to look at
The Japanese gather in their thousands to see the cherry blossoms of lively Ueno park in Tokyo and the Arashiyama scenery of Kyoto as well as many other beautiful locations across the country. It’s not uncommon for friends, family members and even co-workers to reserve a picnic space days before the flowers blossom to enjoy sweet treats like dango and mochi and maybe even a sakazuki or two of sake in the park.
団子 (だんご) dango = Sweet, skewered dumplings made from rice flour – Hanami dango are pink white and green
餅 (もち) mochi = A sweet rice cake – Sakura mochi are pink with sweet bean paste in the centre
杯 (さかずき) sakazuki = Small porcelain cups used for drinking sake
酒 (さけ) sake = Rice wine – an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice
Hanami through time
This tradition was first observed as long ago as the Nara period of Japan – between 710 and 794. Initially, spectators viewed ume blossom trees – plum trees – referred to at the time as umemi. However, ume trees blossom earlier than cherry trees whose blossoming coincides with the ideal time to sow ride paddies – for many the blossoming of cherry trees was a welcome morale boost amongst the working class during their hard labour. Hanami gradually began to refer to cherry blossoms and is now more synonymous with sakura or cherry blossoms. We’ve written a blogpost dedicated solely to the meaning of cherry blossoms in Japan, as well as a helpful guide to Japanese flower symbolism.
梅見 (うめみ) umemi = viewing plum blossom trees
桜 (さくら) sakura = cherry blossom flowers
The term was first used in the eminent piece of Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji in the early 11th century, which depicted the fictional nobility in Japan enjoying sake under the cherry blossoms, demonstrating hanami as an activity undertaken only by the elite of the Imperial Court. However, hanami parties gradually became more commonplace throughout Japanese society, and is nowadays an encouraged form of ‘team-bonding’ with your colleagues and even your boss!
Cherry blossoms are a prominent part of Japanese popular culture, featuring in everything from art, kimono designs, and souvenirs to anime, the Brave Blossoms national rugby team, and even as a popular springtime ‘limited edition flavour’ of drinks and sweets. The popularity of cherry blossoms and hanami in modern Japan is reflected by the use of the sakura-zensen – a forecast for optimal cherry blossom-viewing in each region. The cherry blossom forecast can be found on TV, in the newspapers and amongst live travel updates in train carriages – just like checking the weather forecast!
桜前線 (さくらぜんせん) sakura-zensen = The cherry blossom forecast or ‘front line’
When is the best time to see the cherry blossoms?
Hanami can start in late January/early February far south in Okinawa, though much of the country see the flowers blossom between mid-March and mid-April, while northern cities such as Hakodate, Kakunodate and Sapporo celebrate hanami in mid-to-late April and even the beginning of May. You might just be lucky enough to enjoy hanami parties in different regions and cities across Japan. Websites such as Japan-Guide.com provide regularly updated forecasts across the country, reporting the blossom ‘opening’ date, estimated ‘best viewing’ dates, and even when optimum cherry blossom-viewing is over in different regions.
Sadly, celebrating hanami for yourself may have to wait for another spring but you can still brighten your day (or someone else’s!) with a sakura print kimono and other cherry blossom treats at The Japanese Shop.